In Book Three of the Tess Monaghan Detective Series, twenty-nine year old Tess has finally opened her own office as a private investigator in the so-called “Butchers Hill” section of Baltimore. As its name suggests, Butchers Hill was once home to butchers and poultry preparers, but obviously the name also lends itself nicely to a description of criminals whenever any murders are committed in the neighborhood.
Tess has her initial two clients on the same morning. The first is a 66-year-old neighborhood black man known as Luther “the Butcher” Beale, who had served prison time after he shot at a group of taunting young kids and one of the boys died. He tells Tess he wants her to find the other kids, so he can help the remaining children out as an act of “retribution.” This will be tough; the kids were foster children, and Luther doesn’t even know their names.
Tess’s second client seems to present an easier task. The well-dressed young black woman asks her to find an estranged sister named Susan King.
Tess runs into a number of problems, not the least of which is that both of her clients have hidden agendas. Moreover, she has trouble getting information from blacks who won’t talk to a white woman. She has to delve into the matter of shady adoption businesses, and then there are all those dead bodies of people related to the two cases that keep piling up…
Lippman seems more relaxed in this third book of her Tess Monaghan series. Tess’s sense of humor is coming out more, as is her obsession with food – apparently the character used to have an eating disorder, and there is some question as to whether it is actually gone. And in fact, her waxing rhapsodic over Baltimore’s Berger cookies struck a familiar chord, as my husband has been hearing me do that for years. [Now that I am in Tucson, one of my sisters used to mail them to me every Christmas, but inexplicably, she has ceased to do so. I have forgiven her, but it hasn’t been easy!] Tess’s disquisition on eating peanuts in the shell is right on:
“Have you ever noticed how, in every batch of peanuts you eat, there’s one that’s almost perfect?’ she asked, opening a triple pod. ‘It’s roasted a little darker than the rest, has an almost piquant flavor. So you eat dozens more, looking for one that has that same strong, roasted flavor and instead, you find one that’s acrid and shriveled, which cancels out the perfect one, so you eat dozens more, trying to regain your equilibrium, and next thing you know you have peanut belly, all swollen and bloated, and you still haven’t found that elusive, perfect peanut.”
Much of the humor is related to the character’s history as a literature major in college. When her Uncle Donald introduces her to a source who prefers to remain anonymous as “Mr. Mole,” she had me laughing out loud at her response:
“‘What, are we playing Wind in the Willows all of the sudden?’ Tess asked. ‘Dibbs on being Mr. Toad.’”
Evaluation: The Tess Monoghan series is quite entertaining. This particular book won the Agatha and Anthony awards. I love the setting and supporting cast, and look forward to finding out what happens next with Tess’s life.
Published by Avon Books, 1998